I once infamously defined a geographer to my students as "someone who is quite happy to go to bed with an atlas". After the hilarity died down, the point was generally conceded. The attractions of the 11th edition of The Times Comprehensive Atlas would fit the bill admirably in terms of content, though its vast size - 46 x 31cms18 x 12 inches (I follow the atlas's commendable practice of giving both metric and Imperial measurements) - would make it difficult to handle in bed without some kind of vast paraphernalia of reading stands. Spread out on a large table, however, the dimensions are a plus factor and the impact of the maps and some of the photographs is awe-inspiring.
Despite Marshall McLuhan's provocative predictions of the 1960s, even in these computer-dominated days the reading of books has not become redundant, and despite all the allure of maps on the internet and in GIS packages, neither has the place of the atlas.
In this one, a beautiful set of satellite pictures of the world is immediately followed by a thematic section crammed with intriguing and revealing statistics, tables and maps. These cover the key themes of oceans, climate, population, energy, minerals, land cover, and communications, and also the evolution of mapping to the present day. The double-page spreads have high-quality design and clever colourful graphics, exactly the characteristic to lure the desultory first glance into the interested long read.
There are some fascinating tables and diagrams for those of a encyclopaedic (and quiz-orientated) frame of mind - the world's deadliest earthquakes, the world's busiest air-routes and telecommunications flows, the world's fastest-growing national GNPs. London, it appears, now rests modestly in only 27th place in the world's largest urban agglomerations, flanked by Bangkok and Bogota - Tokyo is first, with a population of more than 27 million.
The themed section charts the destruction of the world's last wildernesses, shifts and growth in populations, and environmental change. The tentacles of major drainage basins are shown, uncluttered by other information, and major mountains and rivers in each continent are identified clearly and imaginatively.
Then follow 125 plates of clear and attractive maps which cover the whole world in exhaustive detail and an index of more than 200,000 places, ranging from the economically-named A in the Lofoten Islands to Zywocice in Poland.
One interesting feature is the variety of map projections used, identified and justified in the atlas. Rather than pinning a flag to a single mast, the Winkel Tripel, the Breisemeister, the Goode "interrupted" projection and even the much-maligned Mercator are included for particular purposes.
The Peters projection (once questionably fashionable in geography classrooms) rightly makes no appearance.
The atlas is authoritative but not entirely infallible. On page iii of the Introduction, Chennai (formerly Madras) is incorrectly identified as the new name for Calcutta (or, as the atlas points out elsewhere, what we should now spell as Kolkuta). And despite the fly-leaf claim of the mapping being "completely up-to-date", when I checked the "Southern Britain" plate to see if Cambourne, the new town west of Cambridge (established in 1998 and now with a population of 5,000 and growing), had made its geographical presence felt, there was a blank on the map, though nearby village settlements of smaller size are clearly shown.
However, these are minor blemishes in a major triumph. This new edition of The Times atlas reinforces its position as the premier reference atlas for schools. No self-respecting school library should be without it, and, if a geography department has a reasonably generous allowance, the high cost represents good value for money in providing a key reference source that will enthrall as well as inform.
Rex Walford is a fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, and was formerly director of the PGCE geography course at the University of Cambridge